2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1991 release of Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, the first feature length film directed by an African-American woman to receive wide theatrical distribution. To celebrate and explore the film’s legacy, the Nickelodeon will present Daughters: Celebrating Emerging Female Filmmakers of Color, a three-day film festival featuring works by a selected group of contemporary female filmmakers of color. The festival will take place from Friday, November 11 through Sunday, November 13, 2016 at the Nickelodeon Theatre.
Director Iyabo Kwayana is one of the nine female filmmakers of color selected to take part in this momentous celebration, and a transnational filmmaker who has received many accolades for her work across the globe. Kwayana is currently getting a second MFA in Documentary Media at the school of Radio, Film and Television at Northwestern University and was Northwestern’s nominee for Kodak’s Student Scholarship Award. She is a past recipient of the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship in Tanzania, the U.C. Cuba Fellowship, and the FLAS fellowship for Portuguese language and the implementation of her youth film curriculum in Bahia, Brazil. Recently, she was nominated as a finalist for the Student Academy Awards and is a BAFTA shortlisted filmmaker.
On Friday, November 11th, Kwayana will screen her two short films Holy Chicken and Macarrão at Daughers. Shot on location in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, Macarrão revolves around an awkward skinny boy with a slight lisp whose kid whose name means “Spaghetti.” As he tries to fit into a world of constant ridicule, he is taken under the local butcher’s wing, and learns that his sting is as sharp as any bee. Check out the trailer below!
HBR had the opportunity to catch up with Kwayana where we discussed the inspiration behind her work and her experiences in independent filmmaking.
HBR: When did you each realize that you wanted to pursue your passion as a filmmaker?
Kwayana: My passion for filmmaking really started in a 35mm photography and dark room class I took at age 7. My mother always had old cameras around so it made it easy for me to continue taking pictures. It was very tactile art form I loved seeing the photo at each stage of the process and I dreamed of having a darkroom. I follow other interests with more focus but I think the decision to pursue filmmaking happened much later when I realized, as a young high school teacher trying to inspire her students that I wanted to have a strong craft and discipline in order to inspire my students to develop their own craftsmanship.
HBR: What was the inspiration behind Holy Chicken & Macarrão?
Kwayana: Holy Chicken, also called The Offering was a documentary project in which I wanted to allow the film to function as a ceremonial space for a character that was going through a painful situation in her life. I looked for a few people that were willing to go on a journey with a chicken from a live chicken mart to a Santeria ceremony and we filmed it. It was an exercise in filming a process.
Macarrão was inspired by a very dear friend of mine in Salvador da Bahia. He seemed so anxious and nervous all of the time and felt he was going to get beat up. I went back in time and imagined what he was like as a child and used the narrative space to imbue in him the strength to overcome his fears about rejection and humiliation. The film was a gift for him.
HBR: In your own words what are these two films about?
Kwayana: I think Holy Chicken is about the intangible power of something unassuming to intervene on our behalf and help someone out of a rough spot in his or her life. In this case, as the film progresses, the rooster moves from being poultry to being an agent for spiritual healing.
Macarrão, I think, is about overcoming also. But its also more subtly about all of the elemental forces of the universe that support the transformation of this boy to feel good in his own skin and to overcome a terribly difficult social situation. Every event that happens to him is really pushing him towards this ultimate transformation.
HBR: What are some of the biggest challenges that you had to face in bringing these projects to light, and how did you overcome these challenges?
Kwayana: I think Macarrão was a more challenging process because I had to find the right world and the right cast to perform the script. I was directing in a language that I speak but it is not my mother tongue so I had to spend a lot of time in the culture to familiarize myself with it as much as possible. What helped me was allowing the cast to improvise and to not hold my dialogue too precious. The scenes in which they improvised seem more successful to me. I think I learned to look for people that could play on set.
After that filming Macarrão, I think Holy Chicken was an easier battle: she is a real person, going through a real struggle but the film is shot in a narrative way, instead of following the typical conventions of documentary camera. Still, I struggled working with the rooster. I was scared of him! I kept telling him that I was going to free him when the ceremony was done but he hated me!
HBR: How did you go about receiving funding/financing for these films?
Kwayana: The majority of my funding for Macarrão was through thesis grants and awards from various filmmaker foundations and organizations in the Los Angeles area.
HBR: What would you like audiences to take away from each of these films?
Kwayana: Particularly with the film Holy Chicken, my intention is that the character be relieved of something she was going through. I want the audience to go on this emotional journey with her and in the end, feel some expected alleviation or relief.
HBR: What has been your greatest reward as filmmakers/content creators?
Kwayana: My greatest reward has been using the creative process in a ritualistic way as an act of meditation and prayer. I feel that the process of filmmaking always helps me transform things in my own life.
HBR: Are there any filmmakers/directors/authors/cinematographers/artists etc. that inspire your work?
Kwayana: There are so many. However, Haile Gerima would be the primary influence. I think more in the way that he speaks about the filmmaking process. Also, I’m really inspired by Ousmand Sembene, Julie Dash’s elegance in conveying the art form, and the author Gabriel Garcia Marques’ treatment of time, the profundity and simplicity of Zeinabu Irene Davis’ film “Compensation” and Arthur Jaffa’s mind and how he makes bold creative choices in his cinematography and editing. They are some of the most inspiring to me.
HBR: Do you have any advice for a young up and coming filmmaker who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Kwayana: My advice would be to learn to listen to the things that move you, that break your heart, learn to listen to those things. Try not to impose your judgments on them, but listen to what they have to say- without you. When we can listen deeply, we can convey the real story that is there.
HBR: What impact would you like your work to have on the industry and on our society?
Kwayana: I think I belong to a group of filmmakers/image makers that are working to heal marginalized peoples through addressing the powerful issue of image projection. I hope that through my film work, some part of their DNA awakens to their real majesty.
HBR: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share?
Kwayana: I’m recently shot a different kind of documentary film in which I filmed groups of children in Henan China. It is an observational documentary.